John Henry Michell

John Henry Michell

John Henry Michell (26 October 18633 February 1940) was an Australian mathematician, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Melbourne.

Early life

Michell was the son of John Michell (pronounced Mitchell), a miner, and his wife Grace, née Rowse and was born at Maldon, Victoria. His parents had migrated from Devonshire. Educated at first at Maldon, he went to Wesley College, Melbourne, in 1877, where he won the Draper and Walter Powell scholarships. In 1881 he began the arts course at the university of Melbourne, and qualified for the B.A. degree at the end of 1883. He had a brilliant course, heading the list with first-class honours each year, and winning the final honour scholarship in mathematics and physics. He then went to the University of Cambridge, obtained a major scholarship at Trinity College, and was bracketed senior wrangler in the first part of the mathematical tripos in 1887. In the second part of the tripos in 1888, Michell was placed in division one of the first class.

University of Melbourne

Michell was elected a fellow of Trinity in 1890, but returned to Melbourne in the same year, and was appointed lecturer in mathematics at the university. He held this position for over 30 years. His academic work occupied so much of his time that it was difficult to do original research. The first of his papers, "On the theory of free streamlines", which appeared in "Transactions of the Royal Society" in 1890, had drawn attention to his ability as a mathematician, and during the following 12 years about 15 papers were contributed to English mathematical journals. It was recognized that these were important contributions to the knowledge of hydrodynamics and elasticity, and in 1902 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London. The number of his students at the university was steadily increasing, but there was no corresponding increase in the staff for a long period. Michell continued his research work but none of it was published. In 1923 he became professor of mathematics and, obtaining some increase of staff, established practice-classes and tutorials, thus considerably improving the efficiency of his department. He resigned the chair at the end of 1928 and was given the title of honorary research professor. He died after a short illness on 3 February 1940. He never married. He published in 1937 The Elements of Mathematical Analysis, a substantial work in two volumes written in collaboration with M. H. Belz.


Michell, a shy and retiring man, was one of the earliest graduates of an Australian university to be elected to the Royal Society. He was a good teacher, modest, good-natured and thoroughly painstaking with students, but his heart was really in his research work. His assistance was freely given to his engineering friends in clearing up their problems, and he did a good deal of physical experimentation including the devising and construction of several new forms of gyroscopes. He was continually at work, and it is not known why he did not choose to publish any papers after 1902. The value of his paper on "The wave resistance of a ship", published in 1898, was not realized until some 30 years later, when both English and German designers began to recognize its importance. A brother, Anthony George Maldon Michell, born in 1870, educated at Cambridge and at Melbourne university, made remarkable contributions to mechanical science, including the famous Michell thrust bearing. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1934 and was awarded the James Watt International Medal in 1942.

During a relatively short research career, he published 23 scientific papers that are some of the most important contributions ever made by an Australian mathematician.A mini-symposium has held at the 3rd Biennial Engineering Mathematics and Applications Conference (EMAC '98) celebrating the centenary of the publication of Michell's famous 1898 paper on ship hydrodynamics, "The wave resistance of a ship", Phil. Mag. (5) 45 (1898) 106-123.

Publications of J.H. Michell

#The small deformation of curves and surfaces with applications to the vibrations of a helix and a circular ring, Messeng. Math. 19, (1890) 68-82.
#On the exhaustion of Neumann's mode of solution for the motion of solids of revolution in liquids, and similar problems,Messeng. Math. 19 (1890) 83-86.
#Vibrations of a string stretched on a surface, Messeng. Math. 19 (1890) 87-88.
#On the stability of a bent and twisted wire,Messeng. Math. 19 (1890) 181-184.
#On the theory of free stream lines,Phil. Trans. A. 181 (1890) 389-431.
#On a property of algebraic curves,Australasian Assoc. Adv. Sci. Report (1892) 257.
#On the bulging of flat plates,Australasian Assoc. Adv. Sci. Report (1892) 258.
#The highest waves in water,Phil. Mag. (5) 36 (1893) 430-437.
#A map of the complex Z-function: a condenser problem,Messeng. Math. 23 (1894) 72-78.
#The wave resistance of a ship, Phil. Mag. (5) 45 (1898) 106-123.
#On the direct determination of stress in an elastic solid, with application to the theory of plates, Proc. Lond. Math. Soc. 31 (1899) 100-124.
#The stress in a rotating lamina,Proc. Lond. Math. Soc. 31 (1899) 124-130.
#The uniform torsion and flexure of incomplete tores, with application to helical springs,Proc. Lond. Math. Soc. 31 (1899) 130-146.
#The transmission of stress across a plane of discontinuity in an isotropic elastic solid, and the potential solutions for a plane boundary,Proc. Lond. Math. Soc. 31 (1899) 183-192.
#Some elementary distributions of stress in three dimensions,Proc. Lond. Math. Soc. 32 (1900) 23-35.
#Elementary distributions of plane stress,Proc. Lond. Math. Soc. 32 (1900) 35-61.
#The stress in an aeolotropic elastic solid with an infinite plane boundary,Proc. Lond. Math. Soc. 32 (1900) 247-258.
#The stress in the web of a plate girder,Quart. J. Pure Appl. Math. 31 (1900) 377-382.
#The theory of uniformly loaded beams,Quart. J. Pure Appl. Math. 32 (1900) 28-42.
#The determination of the stress in an isotropic elastic sphere by means of intrinsic equations,Messeng. Math. n.s. 350 (1900) 16-25.
#The uniplanar stability of a rigid body,Messeng. Math. n.s. 351 (1900) 35-40.
#The inversion of plane stress,Proc. Lond. Math. Soc. 34 (1902) 134-142.
#The flexure of a circular plate,Proc. Lond. Math. Soc. 34 (1902) 223-228.
#(with M.H. Belz) The elements of mathematical analysis (2 vols) Macmillan 1937.

Further reading

For further details see:E.O. Tuck, The wave resistance formula of J.H. Michell (1898) and its significance to recent research in ship hydrodynamics, J. Austral. Math. Soc. Series B 30 (989) 365-377;and A. Goriely, Twisted elastic rings and the rediscoveries of Michell's instability, J. Elasticity 84, 281 - 299. (2006)


*Dictionary of Australian Biography|First=John Henry|Last=Michell|Link=
*T. M. Cherry, ' [ Michell, John Henry (1863 - 1940)] ', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, MUP, 1986, pp 494-495.

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